APR Update: Curiosity’s Essential Role in Human Learning

Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison

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I invite readers to join me in a brief effort of self-reflection about the ways they learn best. In his book How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching, Joshua R. Eyler posits that curiosity plays an essential role in promoting human learning. From your childhood to the present day, I ask you to recall what information or skills you have invested the most time and energy learning, from which you have also gained considerable intrinsic reward. Was the focus of your learning experience dinosaurs? Perhaps astronomy? Maybe gardening or fishing? How about children’s food preferences or family rituals and traditions? When I reflect back about the topics and skills I have most eagerly engaged in learning about, they include fabrics and clothing construction while a member of a 4-H club, manipulating secondary sex characteristics of chickens for a school science project, genealogy and history of the family, family and divorce mediation, and the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). For each example, my curiosity was heightened and sustained until my need to know the information or master the skill was satisfied. I am supposing your most memorable learning experiences have been similarly fostered by an ample supply of curiosity.

In addition to curiosity, Dr. Eyler, the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and member of the humanities faculty at Rice University, credits sociality, emotionality, authenticity, and receptivity to failure as equally essential to human learning. In preparation for writing his book, he completed a deep dive into scholarly literature related to human learning. He consulted works originating from various disciplines, such as psychology, biology, neuroscience, human development, and anthropology. Additionally, he observed and interviewed noteworthy college instructors from assorted locales across the country. Each of five core chapters in the book focuses on one of the different components Eyler has identified as vital to learning. Within each chapter, scholarly research on the given topic is surveyed; a discussion of ways the research can inform teaching practices is provided; and various teaching strategies, techniques, and activities relevant to the given topic are suggested. In this article, I aim to highlight key points made in the chapter on curiosity and offer several applications appropriate for college Family Science/Family Life Education courses and classrooms.

Eyler begins the chapter on curiosity with this quote from The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood authored by Susan Engle (2015):

curiosity is nearly universal in babies, and, in our culture at least, continues to propel children, intellectually, through early childhood. Beyond early childhood, however, its fate rests in great part on the people and experiences that surround and shape a child’s daily life. While there are some situations where it would not be good to ask too many questions, or to investigate too persistently, there is a clear empirical link between the hungry mind and the educated mind. (p. 174)

As Eyler continues his survey of curiosity (what it is, how it functions, and why it is beneficial to learning) from this point through the last page of this first chapter, a number of key observations about this human trait surface. For example, curiosity is heightened or amplified when

  • an information gap between what a learner knows and what she or he desires to know exists.

  • a state of disequilibrium arises from when learners become unsure of the exactitude of what they believe they know and are subsequently encouraged to construct new forms of understanding.

  • learners are afforded opportunities to explore and search for new knowledge and skills by means of their own choosing, particularly novel and creative ways.

  • learners are asked thought-provoking questions, or they are also taught how and allowed to pose such kinds of questions themselves. Then, active discussion follows.

It is not surprising that sociality, emotionality, authenticity, and willingness to risk the possibility of failure while learning are placed along side curiosity in this book as crucial to the process of learning. Acting on one’s curiosity is often made more fun and rewarding when carried out with others. Seeking to resolve learning-related disequilibrium should be not only a cognitive effort but also an affective one. Narrowing an “information gap” is typically more meaningful when learning activities and assignments are practical and true to life. Lastly, from childhood through adulthood, few phenomena curb levels of curiosity and subsequent learning more than the fear of failure. 

Eyler suggests a variety of ways instructors can enhance students’ curiosity. I would like to believe that Family Science/Family Life Education faculty are familiar with these approaches and do their best to implement them. Consider the following possibilities.

  • Establish a level of rapport with students that is warm and personable. As Eyler says, “don’t be scary” and, as a result, heighten their feelings of anxiety and intimidation about both you and the course.

  • Design a new course or unit (or redesign an existing course or unit) so that it is inquiry-based and question-driven.

  • Incorporate ample opportunity for question-driven, high-quality discussion.

  • Empower students to be responsible for and take control of their own learning.

One strategy for demonstrating positive regard and rapport with students during the first week of any course is to create what Ken Bain (2004) has called a promising syllabus from which students can operate. As I mentioned in the Spring 2012 issue of CFLE Network (the article is available through the For Academic Institutions page on the NCFR website or via the link in the references), such a syllabus typically contains three components. First, it explains the course’s promise to the students—what they will gain, in terms of knowledge or skills, by the end of the semester. The focus moves away from what the teacher will cover to what the student will take away from the course. Second, it describes the meaningful learning activities in which the students will engage for purposes of helping them to fulfill that promise. Lastly, it begins a dialogue about how the teacher and each student will jointly come to understand the nature and progress of his or her learning throughout the course. Throughout such explanation, the teacher uses first-person (e.g., I, you, or we) voice rather than third-person voice (e.g., the student or the teacher/instructor/professor). Along with a promising syllabus, teachers can share appropriate information about themselves that is relevant or course-specific, being careful not to overdo the frequency and amount of revelation. In doing this, a teacher is seen by students to be more “human” and approachable.

As one embarks on the design of a new course or redesign of an existing one, I absolutely agree with Eyler that L. Dee Fink’s book Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses should be consulted and used as a guide. Central to an inquiry-based approach within a course is the ability to ask “good” questions, on the part of both teacher and students. To that end, Eyler (pp. 42–43) mentions the design models of Wiggins and McTighe (2005) and Paige (2016). The first coauthors recommend that an inquiry-based course designer begin by developing a set of “Essential Questions” to be answered by students as they progress through a given course. Such questions are those that “get to the heart of things—the essence” of the subject matter (p. 107). They lead to deep understanding and encourage students to ask additional questions arising from their own musing. Paige suggest identifying a single large, primary question that all the efforts within a course should seek to answer. For example, a meta-question for a course focusing on Family Life Education and Schools, which is the theme for this issue of CFLE Network, might be “How do schools work/function/operate?” Some additional, related essential questions could be “Who are the key players in home–community–school interactions? What roles do these persons varyingly carry out? When they interface with each other, what modes of communication lead to better and worse outcomes, particularly for children and parents or other caregivers?”

Concerning obstacles to educational practices, such as question-driven discussion, that might encourage curiosity, Engle (2015) observes that teachers seldom measure curiosity. She reflects that it doesn’t mean much for educators to say they value a quality such as curiosity in their students if they never assess the degree to which this trait is present among the learners in their classrooms. “Few teachers readily see that they’re discouraging students’ questions, just as few parents readily see that they’re short-tempered with their children” (p. 191). Expanding on a remedy she proffers, I suggest readers design and implement a classroom action research (or SoTL) project within their own learning environments following this protocol, or an adaptation thereof, as outlined by Engle:

Teachers who watch themselves and count the number of questions students ask see how much inquiry is being expressed in their classroom—and they’ll learn how they respond to students’ inquiries. To do this, teachers can audio-record lessons or conversations in their classrooms in order to count and categorize the questions their students ask. Video recording is another good tool for this kind of data collection. Multiple teachers might regularly video-tape activities in their classrooms and score one another’s students (to increase objectivity and accuracy) on things like individual students’ level of interest, the number of exploratory gestures students use when encountering materials or objects, and the duration of each student’s engagement with one activity. (p. 192)

Engle also recommends that teachers keep journals of their interactions with students, both in and out of the classroom. Then, at the close of a semester, they can read and analyze these journals in an effort to see the number and kinds of occasions they devised and facilitated for their students to hone in on what they genuinely wanted to learn about and next carried out a process of “coming to know.”

Advocates for universal design for learning (UDL) say offering students choice in the ways they learn and then showing evidence of such learning empowers them to take responsibility for their own studies. In a previous column I wrote for the Winter 2016 issue of CFLE Network, I highlighted three principles and nine guidelines identified by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) as key to designing UDL-based courses. The last of the three principles and its accompanying three guidelines are as follows:

Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement (which promotes purposeful, motivated learners)
Guideline 1: Provide options for recruiting interest

Guideline 2: Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence
Guideline 3: Provide options for self-regulation

In that column, I offered the following application of Principle 3 and its three guidelines within the context of a parent education and guidance course. It seems relevant for this column as well, in light of the overall theme it aims to fit. Students could choose, as one of several means of engagement in a course, to analyze a case study focusing on strategies to support children and parents in the context of a school setting. Individually or in a small group of fellow learners, students could be called on not only to analyze the circumstances faced by the children and parent figures as described in the case but also to recommend appropriate support networks that could be turned to for assistance and then provide rationale for the identified recommendation(s). To further students’ understanding of the support networks that exist in their own campus community, group members could each choose a different entity (i.e., organization, agency, or resource) relevant to the given case to investigate and report back on. This case study strategy follows the “recruiting interest” guideline of UDL Principle 3, as it optimizes both (a) choice and autonomy and (b) value and authenticity. Surely the level of a students’ curiosity will also be heightened.

My summer reading list is a bit eclectic. Besides a nonfiction book on the history of American pioneers; a mystery story that unfolds in fictional Three Pines, Quebec, Canada; and a crime novel featuring a fictional detective with extraordinary memory capabilities, this book by Eyler on human learning was at the top of my list. As I turned its pages, I realized it contents would be worthy foci for a column in this issue of CFLE Network. Enhanced learning certainly influences student success, a possible topic that was posed for this issue. Ideally, the nuggets of insight and applications I have shared here have so piqued your interest that you will place this book on your current reading list as well. I feel confident you will be intrigued not only by the chapter on curiosity but also its four companion chapters.


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Center for Applied Special Technology. (2019, June). About universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.XQqXKYhKhPZ .

Engle, S. (2015). The hungry mind: The origins of curiosity in childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Fink, D. L. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gentry, D. (March 12, 2012). APR update: Incorporating ethics into coursework. Retrieved from https://www.ncfr.org/cfle-network/spring-2012-policy/apr-update

Gentry, D. (February 1, 2016). APR update: Universal design for learning—Applications for
teaching about parent guidance and education
. Retrieved from

Paige, R. (March 9, 2016). The metaquestion: A different approach to course design [blog post]. Retrieved from https://cte.rice.edu/blogarchive/2016/03/09/metaquestions

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. (2nd expanded ed.). Alexandria, VA: Assn. for Supervision & Curriculum Development.